Commentary: A Key Mission for Germany: Beef Up the Military

With defense outlays kept low because of a weak economy, the country is losing clout in geopolitical debates

By Jack Ewing

The troops of the 154th Tank Battalion in Westerburg, Germany, are already preparing for duty in Bosnia next summer. But they won't be bringing their behemoth Leopard II tanks, which were designed to take on the Soviets. Instead, the troops are learning how to operate a roadblock or patrol on foot. "It's a big effort," says battallion commander Lieutenant Colonel Klaus Reinecke.

The German military, designed to defend the homeland, suddenly finds itself scattered around the world in a way no one imagined a decade ago. German soldiers are fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, while German frigates patrol the Indian Ocean to prevent Al Qaeda operatives from fleeing the region. "The Bundeswehr today is a weapon of peace," boasts Defense Minister Peter Struck.

Yet this historic projection of military power, which puts a postwar record of 10,000 troops abroad, has exposed just how weak the German army has become. After years of inadequate spending, such missions have stretched military resources to the limit. The Luftwaffe doesn't have the capability to refuel its planes in flight. It even had to rent aircraft from Ukraine to get equipment to Afghanistan.

Embarrassing--and the situation is set to get worse. While France and Britain beef up their defense budgets, financially strapped Germany is barely holding steady. This month, for example, the government waffled on a commitment to buy 73 of Airbus Industrie's new A400 military transports for $9.7 billion. With defense spending of about 1.5% of gross domestic product, or $25 billion, Germany is technically in violation of NATO treaties requiring members to spend at least 2%. On Oct. 30, U.S. Ambassador to NATO R. Nicholas Burns singled out the Germans for criticism in a Berlin speech. German defense spending is sure to be on the agenda when NATO allies meet at a Prague summit on Nov. 21.

At bottom, this is Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's punishment for failing to fix the economy during his first term. And because Germany has already maxed out its foreign capability, it's not getting much respect in Washington. In the debate on Iraq, France and Britain have taken the leading European roles. German leaders such as Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer have instead spent their time begging the Bush Administration to forgive Schröder for his anti-American rhetoric during the recent election campaign. If Germany had more to contribute to global security, it might get more respect in Washington. But the Bush Administration can easily afford to ignore Schröder.

The prospects for a stronger Bundeswehr anytime soon aren't good. On paper, a comprehensive plan exists to slim down the army while increasing soldiers' pay and beefing up armored ground transport and air defense. But Schröder's governing coalition with the Green Party is having trouble agreeing on such fundamentals as whether to end the draft. And with a slack economy and a rising budget deficit, Germany would have to slash social spending to afford the up-front costs of a leaner army. "In Germany, that's politically impossible," Struck says.

Another factor is at play. Nearly 60 years after the defeat at Stalingrad killed 110,000 Germans, the country's citizens remain profoundly mistrustful of militarism. In principle, that's a good thing. In practice, Germany is in danger of shirking its responsibility. Even the nominally pacifist Green Party is alarmed. "Everyone agrees the Bundeswehr should be fundamentally reformed and modernized," says Winfried Nachtwei, a member of Parliament who is the Greens' point man on defense matters.

With the third-largest economy in the world, Germany needs to do more. Schröder will probably need to brave the outcry and close some bases to redirect funds to other parts of the military. The Germans could also cut the number of draftees but lengthen their service beyond nine months, barely enough for rudimentary training. Difficult choices, to be sure. But after four years of procrastination, difficult choices are all Schröder has left.

Frankfurt bureau chief Ewing covers German politics.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.